[6 December 2010]
It was the Wire song “Heartbeat” that set the tone for Callers’ second album Life of Love: a denser, more fully arranged setting for singer Sara Lucas’ extraordinary jazz-tinged, torch-smouldery voice. The trio already had a well-received debut under its belt in the form of 2008’s Fortune. They had recently moved to Brooklyn and brought in drummer Don Godwin as a full-fledged member of the band. Lucas and guitarist Ryan Seaton were messing around in their practice space when Sara suggested attempting the cover.
“To me, ‘Heartbeat’ sounds like a gospel song,” says Lucas, who should know, since she began singing in gospel choirs as a very young girl in St. Louis. Her earliest vocal heroes included Mahalia Jackson, Betty Carter, and Dinah Washington, and you can hear that early influence in the subtle shadings and free-flowing ease of her singing style. She sounds a bit like certain pop soul icons of the 1970s—Maria Muldaur, Phoebe Snow, and Roberta Flack come to mind—though backed by decidedly tenser, more modern and post-punkish arrangements.
“She told me that when we started playing it,” says Seaton when asked about the Wire-gospel linkage. “I went back and listened to it that way, and I understood what she meant. Wire’s version is almost moving towards a vanishing point. But as far as the form, you’ve got the one and the four, so it’s a constant church-like cadence. I can see what she means.”
He adds, “It’s two damned chords. It’s a super easy form, and a really powerful song.”
Playing that song—at first in the practice space, later live and still later in sessions for Life of Love—had a strong impact on the development of Callers’ sound.
“Part of it was volume,” Seaton explains. “We turned up, and Sara sang really freely over this much bigger sound. And after doing ‘Heartbeat’, we felt that there was this different dynamic that we could work around and embrace. It freed us up to write this batch of the songs.”
All three members of Callers have been playing music for their entire lives. Seaton studied classical saxophone in college (you can hear a bit of sax in the background on Life of Love), and picked up guitar later and mostly for fun. Lucas sang in choirs and studied classical guitar, developing a particular love for Brazilian artists like Baden Powell, Tom Zé, and Gal Costa. Godwin played (and still plays) in a dizzying array of bands, everything from electronica to traditional New Orleans brass groups. When I spoke to Seaton, Godwin had played the tuba the night before in a Balkan brass ensemble.
The three of them first met in New Orleans, Lucas and Seaton connecting in 2003 at a café where they both worked. Lucas was performing regularly in New Orleans. Seaton was looking for people to play with. Early on, Seaton persuaded Lucas to sing a cover of a song called “Forever” over the phone. She performed it a capella for him, via an old-fashioned landline. “I didn’t even know he was recording it,” she recalls. “But he did, and then created his own song, his own sonic universe, behind it on four-track.”
That was the start of Callers, which at first was a singer-songwriter-ish endeavor, built mostly around Lucas’ compositions. “We quickly moved away from that,” says Seaton. “I started covering more ground on guitar and trying to pick up bass lines as much as possible.”
None of the three Callers are native to New Orleans, though they all spent time there and first connected in the city. Lucas is from St. Louis, Seaton from Arkansas, and Godwin—who joined the band later after they had moved to New York—was from southeastern Missouri. Still all felt the influence of this historic music capital. Both Lucas and Seaton agree that Godwin, who lived in the city for seven years, was most deeply involved in its musical culture, playing in modern and traditional bands of many different genres. Yet the other two felt New Orleans’ pull as well. “It’s a profound musical culture that definitely connects the three of us in a lot of ways,” says Lucas. “There’s no other place like it. Generations of families playing together. The clubs. The people. I don’t know where to start.”
“I just ended up here. It was all accidental,” Seaton admits. “But the music was coming out of the walls everywhere. I was just influenced by being there. And it’s one of those things ... the music of that city and the atmosphere of that city really got into my skin. It’s been even more influential after leaving. I’ve even been studying the music in New Orleans after the fact, after having lived there, understanding where it comes from, and also playing with people that have really experienced that music has taught me that.”
From New Orleans, Lucas and Seaton moved to Providence, Rhode Island, a city with its own musical tradition, or at least anti-tradition, since it centers on experimentation and noise. If New Orleans was about deeply rooted history, Providence was more about breaking rules and trying new things. “Providence was really awesome. It made you think you could learn anything you wanted,” says Lucas.
But Providence is a smallish scene, and playing there, even regularly, seemed unlikely to provide the career-changing break that Callers wanted. “We had been living in Providence, and we had part of Fortune written and we thought that either we would start traveling all the time and concentrate on playing shows constantly, out of town, or we would move to a place that was bigger, where we could make connections in town,” says Seaton. They moved to Brooklyn. “It’s been good so far.”
In Brooklyn, they also ran into Don Godwin again, who had moved there after Katrina. They had known him in New Orleans and seen him play with other bands, but had not performed with him. They invited him into Callers, started practicing as a three-piece, and liked what that did for their sound.
“There’s so much scope in Don’s playing. He hints at all these different influences of his, but without beating you over the head with it,” says Seaton. “For instance, he’ll look at a ride cymbal for three minutes before touching it. He’ll hint at a polyrhythm or something by hitting it once. There’s so much going on in his mind.”
With Godwin in the band, the sound began to become louder and denser. “We do try to play around Sara’s voice, kind of like pick up and leave phrases here and there and pass them around. We did that especially in the first record,” says Seaton. “But with Life of Love, there are more walls of sound, and I feel like there’s some tension in a voice trying to break through some of that.”
The songs on Life of Love come from a fairly long period of time. Seaton says that the seed for “Dressed in Blue” is about three years old, while “How You Hold Your Arms” was written during the recording process. Recording sessions were sporadic but intense. The band hired Jason LaFarge and Jeremy Scott as engineers, recording in four different locations, including both Seaton’s and Godwin’s apartments. Lucas says that one day, the band rented vocal mics and she did five songs all at once. Two of the album’s best songs—“Life of Love” and “You Are an Arc”—were recorded live in single takes.
“We didn’t have time to sit around and consider things,” says Lucas. “It wasn’t so much like, ‘Oh, how does this sound?’ and ‘Let’s try that.’ There were a couple of places where we did layering of voices, but for the most part, it’s live.”
The record is lovely, and, like the band, hard to define, slipping fluidly into the cracks between pop, jazz, soul, and R&B. And if it’s unclassifiable, that’s fine with Callers, who are unusually cagey about influences. Says Lucas, “I love 1970s soul singers. I love gospel singers. I love Wire. I love Brian Eno. It’s all there, in my mind.”
She adds, “It’s not like we picked up something in our bedroom and listened to it and wanted to recreate an album that was like this time period or this artist. And I know a lot of people are doing that. This is from years of playing in front of people. This is a very long process of singing in every single capacity I could possibly sing in. I hope it’s relevant to now, and I think it is.”